Literature in a time of pandemic: The view from an international PhD student

I was born and raised in Ghana, Accra, where my belly button remains buried and the place I still call home. For the last four years, I have been residing in the United States, specifically in Massachusetts, where I am enrolled as a PhD student in Science Education at Boston College. 

This spring, I had planned to collect data for my PhD dissertation. I had spent last fall and the winter tinkering and talking about ideas with my advisors. Finally, I settled on a dissertation topic: to investigate how science teachers understand, interpret and implement a science curriculum embedded with computing knowledge. In the weeks leading to the coronavirus pandemic, I had been working on observation protocols, interview protocols and conceptual frameworks pertaining to the dissertation topic. I had face to face meetings with dissertation committee members and spent significant amounts of time in the lab. 

Since the pandemic, everything has been suspended. The middle school where I was scheduled to collect data has been closed. Everything is in flux: I have retreated to the confines of my apartment. It feels crushing, and for an international student there is the added burden of loneliness and the tension of pondering, guarding your own safety, the safety of the citizens of the country in which you reside, as well as the wellbeing of your family back home. My family resides in Ghana. At the time of writing this piece, 136 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, had been confirmed in the country. 

Following the outbreak in Massachusetts, schools were suspended in the second week of March. Days after the school closures, I spent a lot of time on social media and on news websites and channels. These past days, I have limited my viewing to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a few other sources such as the New York Times and John Hopkins University, which is tracking the pandemic. 

In addition, I have also started reading. Literature has always provided me with an alternative reality, sometimes an aspirational one. As a child growing up in Ghana, it opened up my consciousness and sensibility to another existence. The setting described in the novels of Charles Dickens made me realise that poverty, war, and famine were not peculiar to Africa; that these problems were not a blip in human history. They transcend cultures, race, social class, and geography. 

In the past week, one book in particular has shaped the way I view this pandemic, my place in history, and how I will move forward with my dissertation. A novel by Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah scorched my consciousness but also awakened me to the idea of rebuilding, of starting over. According to the United Nations Development Program, the Sierra Leonean civil war led to the death of 70,000 people and displaced 2.6 million people. Growing up in Ghana, I encountered refugees from Sierra Leone in school and at church. When I first moved to Canada and now the US, I grappled with the concept of home and place. What does it mean to uproot yourself and start over in another country?

Beah’s novel “The Radiance of Tomorrow” tells the story of the inhabitants of a village in war-torn Sierra Leone as they attempt to rebuild their lives and return to normalcy. Here, the older generation seeks to restore a time when traditional wisdom guided peoples’ lives while the younger generation seeks a new future in the face of globalisation. The novel is an exposition on the public and private lives of the aftermath of war. It prods and asks: How does one emerge from the shadows of history? Where do we go from here? How do we salvage the bones? 

Beah takes on these questions and renders them with acuity; exploring the motivations, aspirations and the failure of attempting to start any project. The subject of failure in the novel haunted me. Since finishing the book, I have been asking myself a myriad question. Should I have started my thesis data collection earlier? Should I have chosen a different topic? And what are the probabilities of a successful data collection after the pandemic? These questions rage in my mind and failure nibbles at my self-esteem. However, they pale in comparison with the death toll, and the grief and confusion the pandemic has wreaked on lives across the globe. 

The next few days remain uncertain for me and I am taking each day at a time. Uncertainty around PhD funding for next year and possibly summer employment looms large in my mind. But so are the rising numbers of coronavirus infections everywhere in the world. I think of home, Ghana, and generally the developing world. How do countries like Ghana square the realities of the pandemic against existing challenges in areas such as health care and education? In the meantime, literature has become a balm that eases my pain, soothes my anxiety and calms my insides.